Janie Atwood had never met the sheriff of pretty little Cold River personally, but she was already well aware that he hated her.
From afar, sure, but his feelings had been clear ever since she’d moved into her new home as aide and nurse to eightyseven-year-old Damaris Gardiner a few weeks back. Damaris was the latest in a series of elderly patients Janie had cared for over the past few years, but the only one so far who shared the dead end of a Colorado Rocky Mountain road with a scowly, grumpy, perpetually disgruntled sheriff.
Who was also distractingly attractive.
Not that it mattered.
Because he did not like the cut of her jib. Something he made no attempt to hide. His disapproval had been painfully obvious from the day she pulled up to Damaris’s house for
the first time.
Janie wasn’t used to causing strong emotions in anyone, but especially not in men. She’d never been that kind of woman.
Probably she should have been outraged. At the injustice of it all. Instead of secretly something like delighted that she was on the man’s radar.
So naturally, the first time she saw him up close, she pulled a vintage Janie move.
Right there in the middle of the local coffeehouse.
At the very sight of him.
Over nothing but her own two feet.
That not being horrifying enough, she also doused him with the remains of her snowy mocha on her way down, making an even larger spectacle of herself in front of what appeared to be the entire population of her new town in the crowded coffeehouse.
It was like seventh grade all over again.
Janie was painfully aware it wasn’t, however.
“I’m so sorry—” she began, even though she was addressing a pair of scuffed cowboy boots.
On the floor, where she’d landed in a heap of snowy mocha shame.
She already despaired of herself, but if she hadn’t, the highpitched sound she made when two strong hands wrapped around her arms and lifted her up from the battered wood floor would have done the trick.
Because she squeaked, then sighed even more dramatically, and both were completely involuntary. Much like tripping in the first place had been. It was all a horror show.
She had actually let herself believe that her clumsiness was a thing of the past.
Apparently, it had only been on hold, waiting to humiliate her in the most spectacular fashion possible.
The grumpy sheriff lifted her up from the floor as if she weighed no more than her empty coffee cup. When Janie knew very well that she was built along solid lines. Made from proper peasant stock, according to her grandmother, who’d made announcements like that with pride all of Janie’s life and had then patted her own thick thighs in joyful punctuation.
God, but Janie missed her. For a million reasons, not least of which was that if Trixie Atwood had been here today, she would have elbowed her granddaughter aside to get a closer look at the gloriously disgruntled man standing before her, glaring at her with the full force of all that dark, simmering dislike.
It was different up close. It was . . . a lot more intense.
Hotter, something inside Janie pronounced with authority.
Trixie would have seen it as a challenge.
“Are you hurt?”
The question was curt. It was the third time she’d heard his deep, unmistakably sheriff-y voice. The first time, he’d been standing there in brooding silence on his front porch when she’d walked by with Damaris one afternoon. Damaris, who was constitutionally incapable of passing up the opportunity to greet a tree, much less a neighbor, had sung out her hellos. Janie had been mesmerized by the way the sheriff actually tipped the brim of his Stetson in their direction, despite the fact he was regarding Janie with suspicion. And had said, Afternoon, ladies, in a deep rumble that had made her flush all over.
She’d told herself it was the post–Memorial Day heat— what little of it there was with that cold, snow-tipped breeze rushing down from the mountains.
The second time, she’d been lurking in the back of Capricorn Books right there on Cold River’s postcard-ready Main Street, thick with boutiques and old brick. She’d been indulging herself in the history section when she’d heard that same deep rumble up front, exchanging pleasantries with the friendly bookseller.
She hadn’t even listened to the words of the conversation because she’d been too busy fanning herself with a copy of Cold River Through the Ages, a self-published tome of tightly spaced biographical information by one of the local characters she’d met at the historical society meeting she’d attended her first week here. Or she thought it was one of the people she’d met, given that they all ran together into a mass of trembling umbrage and endless pedantry.
Exactly what a person would expect from a historical society in a town that had been formed some 250 years after her hometown back east, she supposed. She’d loved every moment.
She’d seen him a lot more than that, up on their shared dead-end street where he liked to drive by and pin her with the kind of cool, considering glare that would have had her confessing to all kinds of crimes if she’d been of a criminal bent.
Sometimes she lay there in her little suite of attic rooms at the top of Damaris’s lovely old house and imagined herself the sort of dashing desperado who might inspire the instant enmity of a darkly handsome sheriff . . . Instead of what she was. A deeply regular traveling nurse who’d come to Cold River thanks to the letter her late grandparents had left her after they both had passed.
And the secrets about her they’d shared within it, but that didn’t count. It wasn’t like she was plotting a bank heist. She might not have been a desperado, she thought now, but the sheriff was still holding her.
Firmly. Very firmly.
It told her things—delicious things—about his hands that she did not need to know. Because there would be no unknowing them.
Janie could feel his grip everywhere and the effects of that rumbling voice moving around inside of her, all heat and wonder. She was half-convinced she could feel her grandmother’s bony elbow hit her in the ribs, the way it would have if Trixie had been there to urge her to behave.
What her grandmother would have meant was, Come out of your shell, engage with the world, and stop hiding behind old people.
Pretty much a direct quote.
But the sheriff’s remarkable hands were wrapped tightly around Janie’s upper arms, and even though the coffeehouse was packed and people were watching, she wanted to weep with joy at her lucky foresight in wearing a shirt without sleeves. Because she could truly feel his hands against her bare skin, faintly rough and infinitely strong. His face above hers, peering down as if he had never seen a creature like Janie before and wasn’t impressed with the discovery, was
stern and remote.
And was also, without question, the most stunning example of male beauty she had ever beheld in real life.
She realized, belatedly, that she was standing up on her tiptoes because he was still holding her slightly up off the battered old wooden floor of Cold River Coffee. Janie could see, splashed all over his otherwise pristine and finely crafted chest, the latest casualty of her eternal clumsiness. Rest in peace, neat-looking button-down shirt stretched across that astonishing chest, she thought. But she couldn’t devote as much attention to that as perhaps she should have, because staring up at him was like being caught in a tractor beam. His eyes were like bittersweet chocolate mixed through with fire. She could feel them, everywhere, invading her bones and making them ache. Everything about this man was done in stern lines, from the sweep of his brow, his profoundly male nose, to the firm, sensual lips that were currently in a flat line. Not remotely friendly or welcoming, and still she felt inspired to break into verse at the sight of the sheriff’s masterful, masculine chin and the faint dent in the middle of it.
Focus, she ordered herself.
Before she really did launch into poetry, the only thing she could imagine that might make this worse.
And in the next moment, she lunged forward a little, using her palms to bat at his chest, as if that could do something about the slowly spreading coffee stain.
“Ma’am,” came that glorious rumble. As if he were inside her, a notion that made her feel perilously close to dissolving into giggles. And heat. “I would advise you not to assault an
officer of the law.”
“Oh no, I’m not assaulting you. Or I mean, I clearly already assaulted you, but what I’m trying to do now is clean up the coffee I spilled. Which, okay, maybe not with my hands. I hear you.”
Terrific, Janie thought in a panic. The only thing better than tripping over her own feet—or, if she was honest, over the sight of this man standing in her path looking edible and inaccessible at once, for once not across a street or in his vehicle—was the nervous talking. Great. Maybe next she’d start the hysterical laughter that she usually only broke out at inappropriate moments. Like funerals.
But the sheriff was taking control. He set her down more firmly on her feet and stepped back. He started to reach toward his side, and she thought, This is it. He’s going to pull his gun and put me out of my misery, and honestly I may have to thank him for that—
Instead, what he did was reach out to the little condiment bar beside them, grabbing a fistful of napkins. Then he attempted to mop off his chest, his movements brisk and impatient.
Janie reached out a hand to help, but froze midair when that dark gaze punched at her.
“I really am so sorry,” she managed to say instead, sounding only marginally nervous. At least there was that. “I don’t know what happened.”
That was a lie. She knew what had happened. It was the same thing that always happened. Janie was good at one thing. Exactly one thing, and it was caring for other people. When she had her nurse hat on, she was as good as a ballet dancer. Graceful. Nimble. Like poetry in motion.
At any other time, she was a disaster waiting to happen.
And sadly, she never had to wait long.
The rumbly question took a moment to penetrate. “Well, okay,” she said. A little more uncertain again. “You caught me. I do know. I’m very clumsy. As you have now experienced firsthand, sadly.”
She smiled winningly, hoping that would make up for it. Or at least prove that he probably didn’t need to draw on her.
But the sheriff did not smile back, the way she had seen him smile with her own two eyes at Damaris. That was how she knew that when he wanted, he could be perfectly charming.
He clearly did not want to be charming to her.
And Janie was well used to the effect she had on men. One look at her and it was always the same. She was the little redheaded sister they’d never known they had. A buddy. A pal. As nonthreatening as she was freckly and uninteresting, unless there were bodily fluids of ill people to be cleaned up, midnight texts to determine whether or not an emergency
room visit was required, or an empty vessel of calm patience into which to pour their various romantic struggles with other, better, real women who could not be mistaken for
She’d seen the power of her smile in action too many times to count. No snippy ER doctor, too-friendly cabdriver, or overly familiar grown son of her elderly charges could withstand it. One flash and they would start looking at her with exasperated pity—usually mixed with bizarre protective impulses that made them treat her as if she were a precocious infant.
Yet as she stared back at the sheriff of Cold River, smiling widely, he seemed entirely impervious.
If anything, he looked suspicious. Even more suspicious than before.
Her smile dimming, she cast around for something to say in the face of this unprecedented failure of her secret weapon to fix things. Normally this was where the men in question
did something patronizing, like rough up her hair. Or pat her on the cheek. Like she was a favorite pet.
The sheriff made no such move.
“I feel like I know you, even though we’ve never met,” she said brightly. “I’m Janie Atwood. I’m Mrs. Gardiner’s new companion.” He continued to stare down at her as if she had just confessed to trafficking illicit drugs, or whatever it was people confessed to around here. Cow purloining? Goat appropriation? “You’re her next-door neighbor?”
“I’m Sheriff Zack Kittredge,” he said, and she had the distinct impression that he resented telling her his name.
Or maybe what he resented was the snowy mocha bath.
“It stands to reason that I would take out my clumsiness on the sheriff.” Janie could feel a bubble of hysteria beginning to build deep inside her. God help her. And him. “Well, of all the gin joints, am I right?”
Because that helped. Quoting old movies was sure to make this awkward moment better.
“This is a coffee shop,” Zack said. She was impressed at the way that he managed to sound quelling and dubious while still keeping his expression neutral. She bet that came in
handy while he was off sheriffing.
“I don’t drink gin,” she said as if she were still confessing. To her own murder, apparently, and she willed it to hurry up and come faster. “I’m not opposed to gin, necessarily. I don’t
have opinions about spirits because mostly I was raised to believe that a lady might sip a martini but should never overindulge. My grandmother claimed that was always better to
mix the drinks than consume them. Then again, she did love peach schnapps.”
“Well,” drawled Sheriff Zack Kittredge, looking at her with an expression Janie was quite familiar with. Part alarm and part concern for her mental health, but hey. It was an improvement on the distinct dislike, and she would take that as a win. “I’m going to go change my shirt.”
Hallelujah, Janie thought. He needed to leave. As quickly as possible. Because she needed to get ahold of herself, and that was apparently outside her abilities while he was standing there, tractor beaming right at her.
It was only when one of his perfectly crafted dark eyebrows began to rise that she realized she’d said the hallelujah part out loud.
She really had. And she didn’t bother to wish for the floor to open up and consume her whole, because she already knew, from a lifetime of long and painful experience, that it
never, ever did.
“Is there a reason that you’re so visibly uncomfortable in the presence of law enforcement, ma’am?” Zack asked.
Janie could feel sweat at her temples and was pretty sure that she was beginning to turn colors. The bright red of shame, for example. The deep pink of I wish someone would just stop me by any means necessary. The usual rainbow of mortification. She knew each shade well.
And yet she was still talking. “It’s not law enforcement so much as people I’ve humiliated myself in front of—though I guess, in fairness, that includes the entirety of this coffee shop that I can clearly never return to—but I can see how you would think that. Also, obviously, I’m happy to pay for any dry cleaning, or whatever you need to tidy up your shirt or replace it or sew something new for you, though I shouldn’t have said that, because I don’t know how to sew—”
“What brings you to Cold River?”
She welcomed the question, because it cut off the endless chattering disaster of what she’d been saying.
“I’m a nurse,” she told him. “And Mrs. Gardiner wanted a live-in nurse so she can stay in her own home. So, you know. With the nursing.”
“With the nursing,” he repeated in that hard, sheriff-y way of his.
“Okay,” Janie said, her voice getting squeaky again because this just kept getting worse and worse, and yet she was still rooted to the floor as if that glare of his had turned her into
a pillar of salt. Or worse. “You got me. My actual purpose in moving here was to fling coffee on as many members of the local sheriff’s department as humanly possible. I think we can agree I’m off to an amazing start.”
Once again, there was no softening. No smile. She wanted to tell herself that he was simply that grumpy, but again, she’d seen him be perfectly neighborly to Damaris.
Janie had the distinct impression that if his shirt wasn’t soaked through with a snowy mocha, he would have crossed his arms, the better to peer down at her. “I’m not a fan of ulterior motives.”
“I don’t really have any ulterior motives,” she protested, but weakly. Partly because that wasn’t true, for once. But more importantly, because whatever ulterior motive she might have had in coming to Cold River, Colorado—a place she hadn’t known existed until she’d read about it in her grandparents’ letter—right now, she had a very stark and demanding ulterior motive indeed.
She needed to end this conversation. Before she literally died of embarrassment.
“I’m going to give you a word of advice, Ms. Atwood,” Zack said, all deep rumble and that hard, dark gaze. “I can always tell when people are lying to me. You might want to
think on that before you do it again.”
Only then, at last, did he turn around and walk out.
Janie let out a long, defeated sort of breath. And deflated.
And, as ever, she failed to expire on the spot the way she wished she would.
“I’m not going to lie,” came a voice from beside her. “That’s one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed.”
“I can assure you,” Janie said and even laughed a little bit, though she didn’t think anything was all that funny, “living it was worse.”
“Many a woman has been reduced to a stuttering mess when faced with all that Zack Kittredge intensity,” said the woman to her left. “But normally it’s the sort of thing that builds up over time. You just moved here.”
Janie blinked a few times to see if she’d stopped sweating. If her cheeks felt a little less crispy, which meant—as a redhead with a fair complexion that tended toward effusive freckles, immediate sunburn, and a cold weather shade that was only seen in nature on the underbellies of dead fish, so attractive—she was likely the color of beets. And if, against all odds, it sounded as if conversation had resumed throughout the coffee shop. It was a yes to all.
Only then could she really take in the woman next to her.
“I know you,” she said, beetroot-colored but unbowed.
“You’re Hope. From the bookstore.”
“What I am is sorry,” Hope said with a smile. The kind of smile that made Janie want to be her best friend, not pat her on the head. She resolved to try, once again, to work on her own freaking smile in her mirror. “I should have rescued you. But, and I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, I was so overcome with secondhand embarrassment that I couldn’t.”
“I don’t blame you. The firsthand embarrassment was actually scarring. I can feel the scars, literally. They’re forming as we speak.”
“On the other hand,” Hope continued, her smile broadening, “I can’t wait to tell everyone that I know the woman who threw her coffee all over stuffy Zack Kittredge.”
Janie nodded, putting the back of one hand to a still-hot cheek. Beets, she thought. “You can also tell them I’m humiliated. And may have to move. Possibly tomorrow.”
Hope laughed, then waved at the pregnant woman behind the counter. Abby, if Janie remembered correctly. The manager. She had gotten to chatting with the poor woman after
she’d knocked over a side table her first time here. Because of course she had.
“We need another round of coffee here,” Hope was saying. “Immediately. For our new best friend.”
“You can stand in line with everyone else, then,” Abby replied, but with a kind of cheerful affection. “And you should warn the poor girl before you force her to be your best friend, Hope. That way lies madness, and you know it.”
“She loves me,” Hope told Janie. “Really.”
And Janie was used to the way Hope looked at her, anyway. Like she was a project. She was still too shaken from her interaction with the sheriff to do anything but surrender as the other woman linked arms with her, then steered her back into the coffeehouse line.
“I’m going to buy you a coffee,” Hope announced. “Then we’re going to sit down, and you’re going to tell me your entire life story, leaving absolutely no detail out. Not one.”
She reminded Janie of her grandmother. Trixie would absolutely have marched up and befriended an awkward stranger, just because. So Janie obliged.
“Did you deliberately throw your coffee on Zack?” Hope asked while they sat together, after Janie had furnished her with as many biographical details as she felt it was prudent to share, given what had brought her here.
Secondhand stories and no names. Like a treasure hunt.
But this wasn’t the right time for mulling all that over. “I did not,” she said.
“Pity,” Hope said with a sigh. “That would have been quite a move.”
“A move?” Janie brightened. “I like that. Let’s pretend I make moves.”
“That is how I will tell this story,” Hope promised her with that big smile again. “Eternally.”
Later, after Janie picked up Damaris from her afternoon of playing bridge with friends, she made her charge a light supper. She watched Damaris’s shows with her, then settled her into bed. She did a bit of tidying up and then headed upstairs. She did not peer out the windows up the slope of the road toward the sheriff’s house. She did not text all her friends off in their far-flung lives, in capital letters, about today’s Classic Janie Episode.
She found herself staring out the skylights in the eaves of her cute little attic room, toward the night sky. And instead of reflecting on her grand purpose for being here in Cold River, and the letter from her grandparents that had started this, all she saw was Zack Kittredge’s shockingly beautiful face.
Though in her head, he was smiling.
Copyright © 2022 by Caitlin Crews